The image of that car was seared into my mind as if with a branding iron. It was the summer of 1983. It was the moment I realized that cars were much more important than life or death.
I now know that it was a BMW 6 series but my 8 year old self had never seen anything like it before. Sure I had seen tons of BMWs before and of course there were more two door cars knocking around in the early 80’s than there are now. But a car as long and gorgeous as that with only two doors! I looked in vain at the bootlid but there was nothing to see on this debadged beauty to even give a hint what type of BMW this was. Despite asking everyone I knew (and plenty of others that I didn’t) it took me almost a year to see another and to know that what I had seen that summer’s day was a 6 series.
Over the years I have learnt more and more about this car and it remains a permanent fixture in my own personal top three. It was designed by bordelais, Paul Bracq when he was head of design at BMW in the early 70’s. I had never heard of him up to this point in time, which I found incredible when I learnt what was to be found in his huge and varied portfolio. Fourteen years earlier he had been working as a designer at Mercedes when he and his boss, Rudolph Uhlenhaut were charged in 1959 with what must have been one of the most challenging tasks ever in car design:
“Replace the 300sl Gullwing”
It was never going to have the “gullwing” doors of its predecessor. (They had been a necessity due to the exhaust running along the side of the car making standard doors impractical), but Paul penned one of the most delicately beautiful cars ever seen with its concave “pagoda roof”, tiny tail lights and then put his own stamp on the classic sl grill.
I could just look at this car for hours. It is perfect from every angle. Maybe it was a little too heavy (despite using aluminium in it’s construction), slightly underpowered compared to modern cars(150 ps at launch) and early iterations only had disc brakes up front but just look at it. None of these faults can be laid at Paul’s door. I could easily live with these minor shortcomings (if I had €50000 and a garage) while driving the ultimate boulevard cruiser. Its looks have only improved with time and it justifiably continues to be a bona fide classic. Values of good examples continue to rise.
Needless to say Paul got the top design job at Mercedes and went on to oversee all production up to 1967 including the massive Grosser (no self respecting despot could do without one right up to the 80’s!) and the beautiful S class of the time.
He was then persuaded to return to France in 1967 to head up the development team of the then ultra modern TGV. Not strictly speaking a car I know but what a gorgeous piece of design. Apart from changing colour from orange to blue the look of the train has changed very little today, over 40 years later.
While still working with Brissonneau & Lotz (the engineering company based in Nantes that was building the TGV) he penned a prototype sportscar for BMW. The Bavarians were so impressed they offered him the role of chief of design in 1970. It was a very different BMW to today and while there had been many important BMWs up to this point it certainly wasn’t the massive carmaker it is now. Paul’s classic designs helped the company grow strongly and it could be argued his design philosophy was still visible in BMWs right up to the turn of the century. Again he faced a truly daunting task- Design a replacement for the achingly beautiful cs and csl coupes.
He came up with the 6 series. An impossible combination of purpose and elegance. A sharp crease all the way down its side and its unmistakeable shark’s profile. The engineers stuck a powerful straight six (initially with 185ps rising to a whopping 286ps in the Msport model) under the massive bonnet and it remains as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1975. He also oversaw the 2002 turbo (the first ever turbo charged production car), the original 7 series and the prototype BMW turbo which Giugiaro tweaked some years later to create BMW’s first ever supercar, the legendary M1.
The briefest of glances at the cars that followed both the “pagoda” and the “Shark nosed” 6 shows us how challenging it is to follow a classic design. The iconic sl was replaced in 1971 by the overweight R107 which had none of the delicacy or class of it’s predecessor. Paul’s 6 series was produced (with admittedly some tweaks) continually until 1989. It wasn’t officially replaced however until 2003. I really wish they hadn’t bothered. If you have deliberately “forgotten” how either of these cars look and don’t want to be reminded of just how ugly they are please skip ahead to the next paragraph, that said I am reluctantly posting a picture of them here just to remind you of how badly things actually went. They do serve to remind us though, of how special Paul’s work was and maybe we should be thankful for that.
In 1975 he came home to work in France at Peugeot. He changed role and became head of interior design, and remained there for twenty years. Those of you under thirty might be forgiven for being a little disappointed at this news, however there was a time when Peugeot cars weren’t squishy bulbous blots visually polluting our roads (607 anyone?). During Paul’s time there the company produced many notable cars. For me the most important was the 205, the car credited with saving the company, a beautiful cleanly conceived city hatchback. The GTI version is often still considered a benchmark to compare other hot hatches against. Although Paul is not credited with designing this vehicle (Gerard Welter oversaw this car) it is not hard to see some of his influence, especially from the rear.
Although technically retired, Paul, now in his 80’s continues to draw, sculpt and judge at many car shows worldwide. His family have opened a workshop in his home town of Bordeaux called Les Ateliers Paul Bracq. They specialize in restoring and maintaining his beautiful “pagoda”. Paul is truly an artist. His work has always exuded elegance, understatement and continues to retain a timeless appeal. He has certainly never received the renown he deserves having headed the design team at both Mercedes and BMW and having created some of the most beautiful cars ever. He is probably most remembered for the “pagoda” but for me his masterpiece remains the E24 6 series.